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Race & Roll

Photo by Marc Seliger

“I like Lenny Kravitz.”

This phrase could easily appear as No. 1 on David Letterman’s Top 10 under the heading “Top 10 Things a Music Critic Should Never Say.”

Lenny Kravitz is the whipping boy of rock & roll. Air-guitarist critics rush to castigate his licks, lyrics and even fashion choices, giving themselves away by the level of their passion; the personal nature of many such attacks screams, “This is bigger than the music!”

The knock on Kravitz is that he’s too “referential,” that he borrows too heavily from inspirations such as Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Led Zeppelin. His style has been derisively dubbed “retrorock.”

Shall we then call the Rolling Stones “retroblues”? Eric Clapton has openly copped to the soul he stole. When it comes to musical traditions, Madonna has slept around more than Heidi Fleiss. Critical darling Beck is a wanton borrower, but his Grammy-grabbing style is described as “pastiche.” Do I even have to bring up Elvis?

So why all the hateration when Lenny Kravitz digs his hand into the cookie jar? Because he’s a black guy who plays rock & roll.

God, I wish it weren’t so simple, so disturbingly obvious, so American. But music has always offered one of the most revealing glances into the complicated nature of race relations.

In the 1950s, rock & roll (black slang for coitus) was openly referred to as “nigger music.” This is what made Elvis so exciting and dangerous (as early reactions to his live appearances attested): That ol’ boy did nigger like niggers, dripping with the potential to contaminate music everywhere.

A cursory look at MTV proves those racist concerns prophetic. Rock & roll has spread so thickly, you can’t even see the black primer. White boys have usurped it to the extent that when a brother tries to play it, white critics say he’s borrowing too heavily. Ain’t that a bitch.

 

Lenny Kravitz’s new Baptism occasionally suffers from what I’ve disliked about his earlier offerings: lazy lyrics (“I’m weak and I’ve gone hazy/I’m crazy for that lady”). But more important, it represents much of what I’ve liked: musical openness, and sincerity.

The CD’s title, cover art and subject matter indicate Kravitz is having a little talk with God. Who’da thunk it — Lenny a Jesus freak? Not quite; he’s simply continuing his exploration of love in its many forms. It’s just taken him seven studio albums to reach the baptismal font.

The sermon begins with a bouncing synthesizer and a spare snare helping Kravitz proclaim himself the “Minister of Rock ’n’ Roll.” “I can heal you/I can save your soul/ . . . I can touch you/I can make you whole/I can bless it so it don’t get old.” Not E.E. Cummings, but if you’ve ever been to the love fest known as a Lenny Kravitz concert, the assertions aren’t so easy to dismiss.

The midtempo title track is about spiritual yearning. When the electric-guitar solo takes the baton from the acoustic and Kravitz intones, “I don’t want to know emptiness/Take me down to the water/Wanna be baptized in your love,” you know he’s feeling it. “Storm,” the funkiest cut, is yet another ode to the Almighty (and one of the few without a guitar solo on this decidedly rocked-out enterprise). Jay-Z drops a clever and heartfelt rhyme to help the funk-challenged get in the mood.

Tellingly, the best song on Baptism features balladeer Lenny alone with his acoustic guitar. On “Destiny,” the biracial rock star, struggling to claim a small piece of the music for the brothers, falsettos: “There is no place where I belong/ . . . My life is about this song/ No one can live for me/No one can see the things I see/I walk this road/No one can tell me how to be/It’s my destiny.” It’s one of the sweetest fuck-yous ever.